Sunday, April 20, 2014

Silence from both sides

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 20, 2014

Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram
The Hindu Increasing needs... Photo: M.A. Sriram

In the quiet recesses of this country, where the din of electioneering might not have shattered the silence, there is a deep foreboding for the future. That apprehension has less to do with the precise outcome of the elections. It is not premised on the fear of one party or another coming to power for the next five years.

It has to do with the precipitous decline in the understanding in all political parties of the real concerns of the millions of people in this country whose voices are rarely heard above the shouting.
From all accounts, this has been an issue-less election, focused almost entirely on personalities. Even if one accepts this as inevitable in an age dominated by media that believes that only events and personalities matter and not processes, we must worry that practically none of those pleading with the electorate for votes think that issues that matter to ordinary people must be addressed. We hear about ‘development’, or rather ‘the Gujarat model of development’. We hear promises of ‘good governance’. But rarely are the components of development, whatever the model, or good governance broken down into their parts.

After all, development, as is well accepted now, is not just economic growth. It also encompasses environmental sustainability. It should lead to a bettering of social indicators such as health and literacy. It ought to envisage equitable distribution of natural resources. Yet, have we heard even a whisper of these concerns?

Everyone knows that election manifestos are just a ritual, not to be taken seriously. If evidence of that were needed, just consider a party like the Bharatiya Janata Party, projected as the frontrunner in these elections, releasing its manifesto a day after the first phase of voting had concluded. Clearly, no party expects voters to take these manifestos seriously or decide who they will vote for on the basis of the promises these manifestos contain.

All manifestos make promises on issues like the environment. The Congress has made a commitment to prioritise the setting up of a National Environment Appraisal Monitoring Authority (NEAMA). That sounds impressive until you realise that the Supreme Court had already mandated that this be done.

The BJP promises that it will extend irrigation coverage by pushing ahead with the plan to inter-link rivers. It presumes that people will not know that this pipedream of a plan has been severely criticised on environmental grounds. Apart from enormous costs, the diversion of the natural flow of rivers will lead to many more problems like water-logging than the apparent benefits.
Regardless of what these parties state in their manifestos, the actions of the Congress-led government in the last decade, and the BJP earlier, as well as the performance of these parties in the states they govern suggests that they have an almost identical approach towards environmental issues. Essentially, environmental concerns are seen as obstacles to growth that must be overcome.

This is more than apparent when you see the mockery of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), the so-called mandatory ‘public hearings’ before a project is cleared, and the ease with which studies and reports of ‘expert’ committees are set aside. Narendra Modi has already stated that he will reopen the mines in Goa that were closed on the orders of the Supreme Court. And in the last days of the incumbent government at the Centre, a number of projects that posed serious environmental concerns were hastily cleared.

Saving our rivers and forests, cleaning our air, stopping pollution of our water sources, stopping mining in ecologically fragile areas — these are issues that affect the health as well as the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in this country. But there is not a hint from either of these parties that they even understand why people feel apprehensive about the future.

On health too, the approach is unlikely to differ much. It is true that the central government has initiated the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) that has extended health benefits to many more people. There is also a health insurance scheme for the poor. But increasingly, healthcare is getting privatised. While the rich are able to access private super-speciality health care, the poor are left with the choice of either using the cheaper but inefficient public health system or paying exorbitant fees to private practitioners. It is unlikely that a change of government will bring an end to this thrust towards the privatisation of health care.

Education is no better. It is true that with the help of various programmes, more children are now going to school and literacy levels across the country have improved. But what of the quality of education? As successive surveys have shown, the quality of education in government schools remains abysmal with children entering middle school without the ability to even read what they were taught at the primary school level. Such children stand no chance of competing with those privileged to receive better quality schooling in private schools. It is a disadvantage that will stay with them for life.

Indirectly, such neglect of government schools is resulting in privatisation. Today, even poor families, particularly in cities, are being compelled to borrow and save in order to send their children to private schools. The Right to Education makes only a very small dent in the demand for affordable and better quality education for all. Yet, no party articulates what it will do to improve the quality of education so that there is a level playing field for those already disadvantaged due to poverty.

Ultimately, our politicians do not address these concerns because the electorate does not demand that they do. In many countries, politicians have won or lost an election on the basis of such demands. So far, no politician in India has lost for failing to address an environmental concern, or for not addressing concerns like education or health. Instead, the old formulas of caste and community persist and survive.

In this election we are getting a sense that people are not necessarily looking for a different political party but for politics with a difference. If this trend survives and grows, then we might well see a time when politicians asking for votes will have to listen to the voices of the many that are now not heard nor heeded.

(To read the original, click here.)

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